As Israel prepared to go to the polls yesterday, American Middle East expert Dr Michael Doran told a Victoria University of Wellington audience he doubted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election pledge to annex Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories is anything more than campaign rhetoric.

Moreover, Doran told a roundtable at the University’s Centre for Strategic Studies, Netanyahu’s pledge was destined to be superseded by the imminent unveiling of US President Donald Trump and son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner’s major Middle East peace plan.

“We don’t know what’s in it exactly but we do know it’s about 50 pages long so it’s going to be a big blueprint for something,” said Doran. “The administration has withheld any discussion of it so as to give the Israelis an opportunity to just carry out their election.”

Nor was Trump likely to comment on Netanyahu’s Jewish settlement pledge while the election was on, he said.

“I think, if we had Trump and Kushner here in the room and gave them truth serum, they would say none of this means anything because this is all about [Netanyahu’s Likud Party] trying to siphon votes off some of the other parties in the right-wing block and what Netanyahu will do in power is very different from what Netanyahu is going to do when campaigning.”

In any case, added Doran, “the whole debate is going to change immediately once the Kushner plan is put forward”.

Doran is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, having held the same role at the city’s Brookings Institution and been a Middle East scholar at Harvard University. 

He was in the 2001–2009 administration of President George W Bush, where he helped devise and coordinate strategies on Middle East issues such as Arab–Israeli relations and efforts to contain Iran and Syria, and also served as a senior adviser in the State Department and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence in the Pentagon.

His Centre for Strategic Studies presentation covered US policy around Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar and Yemen.

Inevitably, though, because of the timing, Israel came to the fore.

One of the interesting things about the country’s election – results from which start to be declared today – is that the centre-left Blue and White alliance threatening Netanyahu’s chances of a fifth term in office “has an understanding of security that is pretty much identical to Netanyahu’s”, said Doran.

Blue and White’s leader, Benny Gantz, is a former army chief of staff and the alliance includes former Likud defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, another former army chief of staff, described by Doran as “Likud in his world view to the core”.

The alliance is notable for having avoided the phrases “two-state solution” or “peace process” during the election, he said.

“That just shows you the extent to which concessions to the Palestinians without a larger regional framework are just a non-starter with the Israeli electorate. Even the centre-left has moved there.”

The alternative Blue and White represents is more to Netanyahu the man, said Doran.

“A lot of people are just sick of the man. People get sick of their prime ministers. There are those who never liked him ideologically but there are other people who have just had enough of him.”

Asked to explain Trump’s ongoing close relationship with Netanyahu and Israel – including recognising contested Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, moving the US embassy there and the State Department changing its description of the Golan Heights from “Israeli-occupied” to “Israeli-controlled” – Doran cited several reasons.

“When you look at this mess that is the Middle East, and the imperative every American leader now feels to keep the region at arm’s length – that’s a continuity from Barack Obama to Trump – there are very few actors on the ground that can help you with your agenda, who can project power beyond their borders. It’s really only three: Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Each one is problematic. The least problematic is Israel. Israel has a first-tier military, a first-tier intelligence [service], it’s a cyber superpower, it’s a democracy.”

Also, Trump’s stance plays well with his voters and is “good domestic politics”.

His “populist base in the US likes Israel. A lot. America likes Israel a lot if you look at the polling”.

Another factor is Kushner.

“He’s already getting a certain view of the region from Jared, who, apparently, if you want to change Trump’s mind about something is the person best equipped to do so. He’ll sit on Trump’s shoulder and whisper to him and Trump will say, ‘Okay, I got it wrong.”

Ultimately, said Doran, if US leaders “could have the world they want, they’d just park the Middle East off to one side and get down to the real business of competing with China”.

That included Obama with his strategy of treating the region as less about allies and enemies than working with ‘stakeholders’ such as Iran and Russia “even if we don’t love them”.

“The idea of the roundtable approach is that we can pull back, we don’t have to worry about the vacuum that is created,” said Doran. “But I think we have a laboratory in the Obama administration to show us that doesn’t work. Because we got 12 million people displaced in Syria. A million killed. All the refugees into Europe.

“I think there is a very good argument to be made that we wouldn’t have Brexit and [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel would still be a viable candidate going forward if there had not been these flows of refugees into Europe. We also got the rise of Isis because of the vacuum that was created.

“On the one hand, Obama wanted to leave the Middle East, wanted to go down in history as the president who effected that. On the other hand, there’s no clear formula about how to do that. It’s like Trotsky’s dictum about war: you may not be interested in war but war’s interested in you. You may not be interested in the mess in the Middle East but it’s interested in you. So you have to have a policy for it. That’s what we’re grappling with.

“Trump, like Obama, also would like to find the magic formula to keep the worst pathologies of the Middle East bottled up in the Middle East, so he can get down to the business of competing with China. But the Middle East has a way of imposing itself on you. And I think the Russians and the Iranians and the Chinese have figured that out. The more they can keep the US bogged down in the Middle East the happier they are.”

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